Saturday, September 6, 2014
Title: Hair Story: Untaming the Roots of Black Hair in America
Authors: Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps
Genre: non-fiction, beauty, anthropology, African-American issues, American history
I picked up a copy of this book at my local library. Even though I'm a former hairdresser, I never learned how to work on "ethnic" or "black" hair because there were no African-American students in my cosmetology class. If there were no African-American students enrolled in the cosmetology course at the local vocational school, African-American customers would not come into the beauty school. Same thing happened to me in the real world once I was employed at salons- no African-American hairdressers in the salon, no African-American customers. Because of this, African-American hair has fascinated me yet been out of reach. I have had conversations at work with patrons and coworkers about the African-American community's perception of hair and the reactions women receive when they wear their hair super short and natural.
As the title suggests, the authors dig deep into the roots of African-American hair culture- all the way back to Africa. In Africa, hairstyles were used to advertise marital status (or lack thereof0, "age, religion, ethnic identity, wealth and rank within the community" (p. 2). Because of the high status of hair within many numerous African cultures, when the slave traders shaved slaves' heads this caused great cultural shame "and the highest indignity. Arriving without their signature hairstyles, slaves.... entered the New World, just as Europeans intended, like anonymous chattel" (p. 10).
The American slave system and work hierarchy environment helped "develop the social structure of the slave community- 'light-skinned' house slaves and 'dark-skinned' field slaves; 'good hair' vs. 'bad hair' (p.18). This system of skin color gradients and hair types are still used within the African-American community today which has psychologically harmed millions of African-Americans as they use various products and chemicals in an attempt to fit into a rigid standard of beauty.
The book covers historical moments in African-American hair history such as: Madame C.J. Walker, the pressing comb, the relaxer, the Afro, wigs, weaves and the natural hair movement. Contemporary hair controversies (Gabby Douglas, Don Imus, Blue Ivy) are also discussed. As the natural hair movement becomes a global phenomenon (and business opportunity) many hair care companies are realizing that "the future of hair care is going to be about texture, not race" (p.224)